alexandra lamarche

VOA’s Nightline Africa ft. Alexandra Lamarche

Peter Clottey, host of VOA’s Nightline Africa, interviews Refugees International advocate for sub-Saharan Africa Alexandra Lamarche about her recent research on the humanitarian situation in the Central African Republic.

Listen to the full interview here.

The Christian Science Monitor: In areas displaced by Boko Haram, the lure of home comes with risk

In the camps and settlements of displaced people that crowd this city, the stories often begin the same way.

The armed men arrived on motorcycles. Or they sprang from the flatbeds of dirt-streaked Toyota Hiluxes. Other times they were on foot, appearing as if from nowhere, machine guns slung over their shoulders with their barrels pointed skywards.

They came to the town mosque. To the school. To the market. They went door-to-door, looking for men. Looking for boys. Looking for young girls.

Everyone who could, ran. Those who couldn’t, walked. They tripped over bodies. They hid in pit latrines. They followed the road or they cut a path through the forest. But they didn’t stop moving. They couldn’t.

Over the past decade, nearly 3 million people in the Lake Chad region have fled their homes, most of them northern Nigerians escaping guerrilla attacks by the Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram. Scattered across camps and communities, they have become among the most agonizing reminders of the human toll of that crisis.

Now, the country’s displaced have also become the centerpiece of a rising political drama. With national elections approaching early next year, Nigeria’s government has promised – not for the first time – that it is on the verge of defeating Boko Haram. And to prove that, officials say, they are going to send their constituents home.

It’s too soon, some humanitarian groups have protested, arguing residents’ safety is being compromised by political goals. But to many of those residents themselves, the situation appears far murkier – home is a risky, but tempting, promise.

Sure, they say, it could be dangerous, but it is also slowly breaking them to stay where they are. In the tenth year of a war with no end in sight, the idea of staying forever in a tented camp or a foreign city is for many as oppressive as the possibility of violence outside.

“Of course we want to leave – on an average day here, I do nothing, I just wait,” says Usman Yakub, a resident of the Bakassi camp in Maiduguri. If he were home, he says, at least he might be able to farm. At least he could do something besides wait around for distributions of tarp and grains and old clothes. “Government tries to help us [here in the camps] but it’s impossible for another person to provide for all your needs.”

Pre-election push

After a decade of fighting, some 2.3 million Nigerians are still unable to return home, including more than 1.6 million inside Nigeria itself. Tens of thousands have become refugees in neighboring Cameroon. 

“We want zero camps, we want everyone to be able to vote in their home locality next year,” says Ya Bawa Kolo, chairwoman of Nigeria’s State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA).

Such statements, however, have critics raising the alarm that politics are pressuring the government to bring people back to former rebel strongholds before it is truly safe.

“These relocations are entirely linked to the elections,” says Alexandra Lamarche, an advocate with Refugees International and author of a recent report on the returns. “The question is how far the government is willing to go with risking people’s lives to make its political point.”

Nigeria’s national elections are still nine months away, but already the smiling faces of political hopefuls smile down from billboards across Maiduguri. Bright yellow tuk-tuks twirl around roundabouts plastered with posters for would-be legislators and governors. 

For President Muhammadu Buhari, who will run for a second term, defeating Boko Haram was one of his first campaign’s major promises. And although the Nigerian military has notched some major successes against the group since then, the insurgency continues to lash cities and towns across the region. Mr. Buhari, meanwhile, has been conspicuously absent here – most recently missing a forum of regional governors where he was the guest of honor.

“He certainly feels pressure to redouble his efforts now because he doesn’t want to be seen as not fulfilling his campaign promise,” says Ibrahim Umara, associate professor of international relations and strategic studies at the University of Maiduguri.

In March, Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno State – where Boko Haram’s insurgency is concentrated – pledged that he would close all of the camps for displaced people in Maiduguri, the state capital, this year. By midway through next year, he promised, everyone who wanted to go home would be there. (Those statements are “conditional,” his spokesperson later stressed to the Monitor, and “the governor’s greatest wish is to close all camps and resettle all [displaced people] in safe and dignified ways.”)

The choice of Bama to begin the latest round of returns was deeply symbolic. The second-largest city in Borno, Bama has long been a weathervane for the government’s fight against Boko Haram. When it fell to the insurgents in 2014, it became proof-positive that Boko Haram could seize and hold a major city. When the Nigerian Army recaptured the city the following year, just two weeks before a national election, government officials pointed to the victory to show that the tide had turned.

Within two weeks of the first convoy, about 35,000 people returned to the city, according to figures provided by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.

Babagana Kassim was among them. Three years ago, Mr. Kassim arrived in Maiduguri with nothing after fleeing an attack on a mosque where he was praying in Bama. He didn’t have his two wives or his nine children. Not his prized maroon Volkswagen nor the wad of naira notes he kept buried in the sandy dirt behind his house. Not even his shoes.

“I was broken then,” he says.

Slowly, he says, he built his life back. Three months later, his family followed him to Maiduguri, and a few months after that, Kassim, who had been a shopkeeper in Bama, opened a small store selling snacks and household goods.

But the thought of going home was never far from his mind, and when he heard on the radio that the government was beginning relocations back to Bama, he decided immediately to go.

As soon as he arrived, however, he says something seemed off.

“They were telling us the whole city was rebuilt but when we arrived, but it was maybe one in three buildings,” he says. And the sudden influx of people had strained humanitarian resources. Food distributions kept running out before he got to the front of the queue.

“The day after that, I came back to Maiduguri,” he says. “I realize now, taking people home is a ploy for the election period. Wait till the election finishes – they’ll stop all this talk. It’s just to deceive people into voting.” 

After the two attacks, the local government halted the returns, saying they would only continue when the security situation was better. Still, most of those who returned to Bama have stayed, according to UNHCR.

But in the camps in Maiduguri, many of the displaced still think returning home before the elections is a far-fetched idea. For Talatu Akawu, who lives in Bakassi and comes from the nearby town of Gwoza, it’s no longer her top priority.

“Our house was destroyed, so as of now, we don’t have anything to go home to,” she says. But Maiduguri sometimes seems little better, she says. On a recent afternoon, she was hanging her laundry outside the tarp tent she shares with her family when she heard the familiar pop-pop-pop of gunshots in the distance. It was Boko Haram, attacking a neighborhood nearby.

“It’s a fiction to say that Boko Haram is defeated,” she says. “Look what happens – we are not even safe here.” 

This piece originally appeared here

IRIN: Aid groups in Congo fear political tensions could impede their work

Relations between the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo and international aid agencies have hit a “low point” since the government refused to attend its own donor conference earlier this month, humanitarian experts and officials here and in Geneva said, elevating concerns that relief to more than 13 million people could become a political bargaining chip, ahead of elections now slated for December.

After its no-show at the Congo fundraising conference in Geneva on 13 April, President Joseph Kabila’s government upped the stakes last week by declaring it will set up a new Humanitarian Fund Management Agency to “manage, monitor and control humanitarian funds and work to channel all financial flows affecting the humanitarian sector” in the country.

"Money has been raised. The DRC government must now be involved in its management. If not, there will be serious consequences," warned Congolese Foreign Minister Léonard She Okitundu in an interview with local media.

The 13 April donor conference, attended by 54 countries, raised $530 million of the $1.7 billion the UN says is required to meet the needs of 10.5 million people targeted for assistance, including 4.5 million displaced by conflict, many of them suffering from disease and malnutrition.

Three weeks before the conference, however, the government announced it would boycott, with Congolese Acting Prime Minister José Makila accusing the UN and the international NGO community of propagating a "bad image of DRC throughout the world".

The government has not elaborated on what the “serious consequences” might be for aid agencies or donor governments that don’t cooperate with its proposal to manage funds. It is not yet clear how the fund is expected to work, but experts on international aid said it is unlikely that donors would use the Congolese government as a conduit for large sums of aid money.

“Can you image the United Kingdom government saying the money they were supposed to send to UNICEF will instead go to the Congolese government to manage?” a senior UN staffer in Kinshasa working closely with the relief effort said. “We are not talking about a normal government. Nobody will send them money to address the humanitarian crisis.”

Few aid workers or officials with international donors and humanitarian organisations who spoke to IRIN would agree to be named for fear that public statements might jeopardise their ongoing work in the country.

But, in a series of interviews with several people close to the matter, serious concerns were raised over both the long- and short-term impact that tensions between the government and the aid sector could have on providing assistance to Congo’s 13.1 million people in need. One UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity, described relations as at a “low point”.

Congo has suffered from decades of conflict and political dysfunction. As unrest has continued to escalate in North and South Kivu, Tanganyika, Kasai, and Ituri, the number of Congolese requiring humanitarian assistance has doubled since 2014, reaching the same overall numbers as Syria.

Analysts and aid workers point to domestic politics as the main reason behind the government’s boycott of the Geneva donor conference.

Kabila, who has faced international condemnation since his refusal to stand down from power in December 2016 (several top officials have also been sanctioned by the European Union and the United States) had little to gain from an event focused on the ills of his country. He has vowed not to seek re-election, but voting has been repeatedly delayed and the police have cracked down hard on political protests that have turned deadly in the capital, Kinshasa.

Kabila’s government views a negative portrayal of the country’s humanitarian situation as a gift to the opposition, in advance of the December elections.

The government has disputed the data used to assess the situation. Congo's Minister of Humanitarian Affairs Bernard Biango, for example, points to only 230,000 internally displaced people nationwide, compared to the UN’s estimate of 4.5 million.

Kinshasa has said it rejects the UN’s assessment of the humanitarian crisis in Congo, in particular the designation last October of parts of the country as a ‘Level 3 emergency’ – the gravest classification possible – putting the country on a par with Syria and Yemen. The designation was downgraded early in April, a move the UN said was routine, but one that was criticised by some who saw it as a misguided gesture designed to mollify the Congolese government.

As well as contesting the scale of the crisis, two people within the UN said the Congolese government was aggrieved by the decision to invite it to the conference as a guest rather than as co-host and organiser. “It may have been a mistake,” one said.

A Security Council briefing on 19 March by UN relief chief Mark Lowcock, which linked the humanitarian crisis in Congo to the political crisis in Kinshasa, may have also “angered the government”, that same person said.

What impact any lasting discord between the Congolese government, donor countries, and aid agencies will have on the relief effort, spread across several insecure regions in the vast country – around two thirds the size of Western Europe – remains to be seen. Earlier disagreements have already had some effect, however.

After a diplomatic spat that began in January, when the Belgian government announced it would carry out a “fundamental revision” of cooperation with the DRC until “credible elections” were held, Kinshasa threatened local and international NGOs that received money from its former colonial power.

At the pledging conference, Belgium said it would contribute up to 25 million euros to “continue expressing its solidarity with the Congolese people”, but Foreign Minister Okitundu has said NGOs that receive this money will not be authorised to work in the DRC.

Analysts said that strained relations could impact aid workers in other ways, too.

NGOs in the DRC regularly confront complicated visa and registration procedures, for example.

Recent statements by Congolese officials “clearly signal that this may worsen, and that they are trying to tarnish the reputation of aid agencies,” said Alexandra Lamarche, advocate for sub-Saharan Africa and peacekeeping for Refugees International. “Bureaucratic impediments could increase and become more crippling and even dangerous.”

For now, however, humanitarians working in the field said they have not noticed any changes. “Local authorities tend to appreciate what we are doing,” one aid worker said, adding: “They don’t receive any help from Kinshasa.”

What would make a difference to people in need is more funding reaching aid programmes on the ground. Before the Geneva conference, still relatively early in the calendar-year process, donors had pledged only 13 percent of the funds requested by the UN, compared to 23 percent for Syria and 46 percent for Yemen.

This originally appeared here

All Africa: Nigeria: Panic Over Planned Closure of Nigeria Refugee Camps

REFUGEE rights groups have bemoaned the imminent closure of camps housing millions of Nigerians displaced by the Boko Haram terror northeast of the country.

The West African country is planning to close all refugee camps by May and facilitate large-scale returns in the Borno State, especially to remote areas only recently secured from the terrorists.

Refugees International (RI) expressed alarm at the plans.

"We are concerned that many returns are being fueled by official pressure and the spread of misinformation," Alexandra Lamarche, RI Advocate for Sub-Saharan Africa, said.

Authorities are accelerating plans to return the displaced civilians as Nigeria approaches its national elections in early 2019.

Mark Yarnell, RI Senior Advocate, said while the Nigerian military had liberated a number of areas in the northeast Nigeria from Boko Haram control, major security challenges remained.

"Making large-scale returns for the majority of displaced civilians is entirely premature," Yarnell said.

As a result of the Boko Haram banditry, the scale of the humanitarian and security challenges within Nigeria remains staggering.

About 2 million Nigerians are displaced within the country and 7,7 million in urgent need of emergency assistance.

Additionally, the conflict still results in new displacement.

Humanitarian groups estimate more than 930 000 Nigerians are located in hard-to-reach areas impacted by the security situation are likely in need of humanitarian assistance.

The Boko Haram is perpetrating a violent campaign to overthrow the government an establish a radical Islamic state.

An estimated 100 000 civilians have been killed during the insurgency that begand in 2009.

For the original article, click here. 

Huffington Post: Ambassador Nikki Haley’s Trip To Africa

As the highest-level Trump Administration official to visit South Sudan, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley experienced first-hand the volatility of the country, when she had to be evacuated during her visit to a displacement camp on Wednesday. As protests against President Salva Kiir started to threaten her security, Ambassador Haley got a glimpse into the everyday life of South Sudanese people, trapped in the violent power-struggle between President Salva Kiir and former Vice-President Riek Machar and desperate for change.

This comes only hours after Ambassador Haley tweeted about her visit to the Nguenyyiel refugee camp in the Gambella Region of Ethiopia, in which she wrote: “S[outh] Sudan is a reminder we can’t look away. We can’t let armed conflict be their only choice.” She’s right: we can’t look away, and this sentiment will hopefully be put into action as Ambassador Haley continues her three-country tour.

We’re very encouraged by Ambassador Haley visits to Ethiopia, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where she is focusing on humanitarian challenges consuming both South Sudan and the DRC. The problems are daunting, but there are opportunities for progress in both countries.

Refugees International

South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia.

 

South Sudan’s independence in 2011 was widely celebrated by the international community as an important step toward peace and prosperity, but civil war erupted in December 2013 between forces loyal to President Kiir and those loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar. The fast-moving conflict resulted in serious human rights violations on all sides, leaving two million people internally displaced and forcing two million to seek refuge or asylum in other countries, according to UNHCR figures. Civilians experience violence every day and remain in extreme danger, while humanitarian efforts are systematically obstructed and aid workers are targeted.

Ethiopia, which was Ambassador Haley’s first stopover, contributes to UN peacekeeping forces in South Sudan and hosts some 400,000 South Sudanese refugees. The Haley visit was important in communicating the importance of Ethiopia playing a strong role in working for peace in South Sudan.

Reports suggest that, in South Sudan, Ambassador Haley has pressed President Kiir to take action to end abuses against civilians and to ensure the safety and access for humanitarian aid workers. This is good news, as President Kiir’s recent statements and actions reflect little concern for international opinion or the urgency of the humanitarian situation. And if abuses continue and negotiations continue to stall, the United States should not only take tough measures against the Kiir government, but consider support for a joint AU-UN effort to establish joint administration of the country in a transition period.

Ambassador Haley’s visit to the DRC is no less difficult. As a result of poor governance, constant interference by other regional actors, internal conflict, and horrific abuses by security forces, nearly four million are internally displaced and 1.4 million forced from their homes due to the recent conflict in the Kasai region. In addition, more than half a million citizens have fled the country as refugees, while the DRC hosts some 500,000 refugees from other African states.

The UN stabilization mission to the DRC, MONUSCO, has an extraordinarily challenging mandate to protect civilians, humanitarian personnel and human rights defenders, while also supporting the government’s stabilization efforts. We are deeply concerned that recent proposed cuts to peacekeeping operations driven by the U.S. Administration were motivated not by the need for efficiency but rather the desire for budget savings, and risk undermining civilian protection in the DRC and worldwide.

During her visit, Ambassador Haley should not only review the peacekeeping operation, but also announce support for a careful assessment of the impact of cuts on basic protection and monitoring activities in the DRC and other countries hosting peace operations. Moreover, the process of budget reductions should not be opaque; the UN must provide public information on the specific programs that are being cut.

Ambassador Haley should also take the opportunity of her visit to press the DRC government to investigate abuses by DRC security forces, which have been responsible for numerous violations of human rights. Finally, she should announce continued and increased humanitarian aid to the DRC to help fill critical humanitarian assistance funding gaps.

Taken together, these actions would powerfully communicate an interest in U.S. leadership and engagement in humanitarian issues that would be warmly welcomed in Africa and around the world.

This originally appeared here